SYDNEY — As many Americans still struggle to access tests to determine if they are infected with COVID-19, health officials across Australia have taken steps to test many residents with even mild flu-like symptoms in their own effort to clamp down on the coronavirus spreading around the globe.
The state of New South Wales, home to Sydney, said this week that residents in hot spots with known community transmission of the virus should come forward and get tested as soon as possible, allowing health officials to quarantine those who test positive and better trace their contacts.
“We’re urging everybody, even if you have the mildest symptoms, to please come forward in those areas and get tested,” state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said during a press briefing. “We’re urging anybody in those high-risk categories, anybody who specifically lives in those suburbs that were identified, if you have any symptoms, please come forward and get tested.”
Other states have made similar inroads. In Victoria, anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 is now eligible for a test. Tasmania announced a “testing blitz” on Wednesday “above and beyond the national guidelines,” asking anyone with flu symptoms to seek medical attention. And Western Australia has said that those with high fevers and symptoms of respiratory infections are now eligible even if they haven’t come into contact with a known case.
The achievements fall in stark contrast to those in the United States. President Donald Trump has continued to push for the country to reopen, saying the economy couldn’t bear to stay shuttered for the foreseeable future in line with pleas from health officials. Yet governors and business executives have pressed the White House for dramatic increases in testing around the country in order to see that happen, noting many Americans are still facing difficulties getting tested even if they have symptoms of the coronavirus.
“The more testing, the more open the economy. But there’s not enough national capacity to do this,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said Wednesday. “We can’t do it yet. That is the unvarnished truth.”
Trump has said repeatedly the U.S. has “the most expansive testing system” in the world, but federal testing guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still prioritize patients presenting with specific symptoms. Even with those restrictions, the U.S. now leads the world in terms of cases, with more than 629,000 infections and more than 26,700 deaths.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday revealed a $30 billion proposal to develop a “fast, free testing” network in every community in the country, but it would likely need to be added to any future relief package that followed up on the landmark $2 trillion stimulus.
Australia has one great benefit over many other countries: It’s an island nation with thousands of miles of ocean between it and its nearest neighbor. The country effectively shut down all international travel last month, allowing only Australian citizens, permanent residents and their families to enter. Any traveler now arriving in Australia from overseas is also required to self-isolate at specifically designated facilities like hotels for 14 days at their port of arrival (some states have similar mandates for those arriving from neighboring states).
Domestically, the government has told Australians to avoid all non-essential travel within the country, fining those outside their homes for in violation of stay-at-home measures and various state governments have banned visitors from other locales, including Queensland and Western Australia, with few exemptions.
The measures, as well as strict social distancing guidelines that ban groups of more than 2 people anywhere, have been cautiously seen as successful. Australia has around 6,500 cases and 63 deaths, but daily infection rates have plummeted, prompting health officials to declare the country has, for now, flattened the curve.
“This is not a sprint. This is a marathon,” the country’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said this week, noting Australia was “in a much better place than [he] thought we would be at this point.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday social distancing measures could be lifted in a month should certain requirements be met, far sooner than what health experts predict in America. But he warned that even if that happens, the country could not get complacent until a vaccine is developed.
“We need an even broader testing regime,” Morrison said during a news conference. “We have one of, if not the most, extensive testing regimes in the world today.”
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